diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 26, 2018

Today's post is about Next Train Indicators which refuse to tell you when the next train is. Specifically it's about Next Train Indicators in ticket halls and on station concourses, the ones you look up and see before you get to the platform. Here's one.

This is Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, and this is the Next Train Indicator in the ticket area. If the next train is 3 minutes away it'll tell you. If the next train is 2 minutes away it'll tell you. But once the next train gets to 1 minute away it disappears from the display, and it stays missing as the train approaches and rumbles into the platform.

If two trains are approaching, in opposite directions, both disappear from the display prematurely. At 2 minutes distant both can be seen, but at 1 minute both blink out, making it look like the next train is a lot further away than it really is. Why hide the information?

If it took two minutes to walk from the Next Train Indicator to the platform, this might make some sense. But it doesn't, it only takes 50 seconds. I checked by timing it. I set off from the Next Train Indicator just as the "2 mins" train disappeared, then crossed the concourse and climbed the stairs, not especially quickly. It took just under a minute, and I still got to wait on the platform for another minute before the train arrived. What on earth is going on?

It might be that TfL are worried about passengers running for trains. If you see a train is 0 minutes away you're very likely to run for it, and maybe injure yourself on the stairs, and that would look bad in the statistics. If you see a train is 1 minute away you might still run to catch it, and stumble, so maybe it's better you don't know. But if the only next trains you see are always at least 2 minutes away, and the platform is 1 minute away, then you'll surely walk and an accident is unlikely.

Except that doesn't wash either, as I discovered when I visited other DLR stations on the same line.

StationLineTime to walk
to platform
Time after which the
Next Train 'disappears'
Pudding Mill Lane  DLR 50 secs2 mins
Bow Church DLR 30 secs2 mins
Langdon Park DLR 8 secs2 mins
All Saints DLR 40 secs2 mins
Heron Quays DLR 45 secs2 mins

The DLR seems to have a default setting, whereby trains simply vanish from the off-platform displays two minutes before they arrive. And this is despite the fact that, at each of these five stations, it takes less than a minute to walk from the display to the train. The situation at Langdon Park is insane, given that the display is less than 10 seconds walk from the entrance to the platform. The Next Train Indicator on the platform is clearly visible, giving correct information, but trains still vanish from the external display with 2 minutes to go.

And just when you think there's a pattern, something breaks it.

StationLineTime to walk
to platform
Time after which the
Next Train 'disappears'
Canary Wharf        DLR 20 secs0 mins

Canary Wharf DLR station has a different kind of digital display, located in the centre of the concourse immediately underneath the platforms, and it always shows correct information. If a train's 1 minute away, it'll tell you. If a train is sitting in the platform ready to go, it'll tell you. One stop down the line at Heron Quays trains disappear with 2 minutes to go, but for some reason commuters at Canary Wharf are allowed to be trusted with the truth.

At nearby Canary Wharf tube station, no Next Train Indicators are provided at ticket hall level, so passengers have to head down to the platforms to see how trains are running. But several tube stations do provide Next Train Indicators on their concourses, so I tested out a few local ones.
With regard to timings, I didn't walk fast, and I stood on escalators rather than walking down them.

StationLineTime to walk
to platform
Time after which the
Next Train 'disappears'
Bow RoadDisH&C30 secs0 mins
Mile EndCenDisH&C20 secs1 min
Bethnal Green Cen55 secs2 mins

How intriguingly inconsistent. At Bow Road the Next Train Indicator in the ticket hall tells the truth... so I often reach the platform too late to catch the train I saw displayed upstairs. At Mile End the walk down to the platforms is shorter but this time the trains disappear with 1 minute to go. Many's the time I've sauntered down to the platform at Mile End and caught a train the display never told me would be there. Meanwhile Bethnal Green is a deceitful station, with trains blinking out of existence 2 minutes before they arrive even though it takes less than a minute to glide down the escalator... and less than that to walk. Why show the information at some stations but hide it at others, and why do this at different times?

I then checked out another bit of the Underground network, including a combination of sub-surface and deep tube lines.

StationLineTime to walk
to platform
Time after which the
Next Train 'disappears'
Swiss Cottage Jub50 secs0 mins
Finchley Road JubMet40 secs0 mins
Baker Street Met40 secs0 mins
Gt Portland St H&CMet45 secs0 mins

No problems here, these ticket hall displays tell you exactly what's going on at platform level. Except that platform level is almost a minute away, so these are next trains that, most of the time, you won't catch. Why is it OK at these busy tube stations to maybe encourage passengers to run for their train, whereas at quiet DLR stations the Next Trains are deliberately blanked out?

To muddle things further, here's what's going on Green Park and King's Cross St Pancras.

StationLineTime to walk
to platform
Time after which the
Next Train 'disappears'
Green ParkJubPicVic1m 30s (→Pic)1 min
King's Cross NorPicVic1m 50s (→Pic)1 min
King's Cross NorPicVic 2m 30s (→Nor) 1 min

Both these stations have big displays in the ticket halls showing the next three departures in both directions on each of three lines. It's wonderfully informative, but again, includes trains you're almost certainly not going to catch. Here trains remain on the display until they're one minute away, then vanish, but in every case it takes more than a minute to get down to the platform. Indeed hiking down to the Northern line from the Northern ticket hall at King's Cross takes 2½ minutes, so in this case it might be that you'll miss the first two trains shown.

It is great to have an indication of what the service is like down below before you commit to swiping through the gates. But again I have to ask, why the utter inconsistency from station to station?

And finally, back to the DLR at Bow Church, where researching today's post caused me to spot something I've never noticed before. That's funny, I thought, the next train seems to have been 2 minutes away for rather a long time. So I watched the upstairs display as the next train approached, and timed it, and discovered that some minutes are considerably longer than others.

StationLineTime before
next train
Display says...
Bow Church  DLR   5m 59s-5m  5 mins
4m 59s-4m4 mins
3m 59s-3m3 mins
2m 59s-2m2 mins
1m 59s-1m2 mins
0m 59s-0mvanished

Somebody has programmed the display to show '2 mins' for twice as long as it should do, including the entire minute when it should have read '1 min'. That's just... perverse. The only reason I can think of for manipulating the figures is again safety-related. Had you been told the train was 1 minute away, you might have run down the stairs. But when you're told the train is 2 minutes away, you walk, and still arrive on the platform in time to catch it. Clever, perhaps, or alternatively plain devious.

So it turns out that the next train at Bow Church DLR is only disappearing one minute before it arrives, even though the display has been contrived to make it look like two. I checked at Pudding Mill Lane, and it doesn't happen there. I've not yet checked if it happens anywhere else. But how unnervingly strange.

To summarise, numerous Next Train Indicators on station concourses won't always show you the time of the next train, because somebody doesn't want you to know when it's coming, and has deliberately fixed the system to hide the information one or two minutes prematurely. Not only is it misleading, it's also wildly inconsistent, and in the case of the longer disappearances more than a little creepy. I wonder, is there a Next-But-One Train Indicator at a station near you?

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